As the first wave of punk evolved into hardcore, no wave, postpunk, and a variety of other subgenres, a singular strand of the punk explosion developed in Southern California: deathrock. Consisting of a dark mélange of glam rock imagery, punk-inflected sound and attitude, and shock rock theatrics, deathrock could only be neatly disentangled from the broader regional punk movement long after its arrival. A second deathrock revival is currently underway – and this is no little irony, given how small the original movement actually was.
The strictest and least forgiving definition of deathrock would be that it was a dark postpunk phenomenon that lasted from 1979 until 1985, and was primarily local to Los Angeles. The standard-bearer bands were 45 Grave, Christian Death, the Superheroines, Kommunity FK, and, in their most ghoulish phase, TSOL. These groups featured lineups that showed a tight linkage with other California punk bands of the time. It’s only in retrospect that the original lineup of 45 Grave, for example, makes the band appear to be a kind of punk supergroup, with members from The Germs, Vox Pop, Castration Squad, The Screamers, and The Consumers filling the band’s ranks (45 Grave keyboardist Paul Roessler would also play synths with the Dead Kennedys for a bit.) This was the reality of early punk scenes in general; tightly knit DIY communities often featured bands pulling from a limited pool of musicians simply because the early US punk scene was not very large.
Dinah Cancer, the singer of 45 Grave, put it this way: “The first prowlings of deathrock came in the early ’80s before we were labeled as our other counterparts – the gothic movement. There were no Goths. The Deathrockers were splintered off from the punk/hardcore scene that was going on at the time. We played punk rock but we loved Halloween and we looked like vampires. So the phrase ‘deathrock’ was born. […] At the time when I was performing with 45 Grave, we were just playing music and we didn’t consider ourselves a pioneering movement. We were playing with bands like Christian Death, Black Flag, and TSOL, to name a few. And it wasn’t until later that we were named as part of the pioneers of the Deathrock culture.”
In fact, deathrock constituted a macabre take on punk rock that took inspiration alternately from the Grand Guignol-type theatrics of Alice Cooper (witness 45 Grave’s cover of Cooper’s “School’s Out”,) the early shock rock of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Screaming Lord Sutch, and the imagery of silent film, or b-movie, horror. Most of the movement’s foundational bands had come into existence by 1980, but would release their best material after that, in the years 1981 to 1986. Parallel trends were happening outside the fertile matrix of the Southern California punk scene; developments in Europe (and Japan!) mirrored the development of Californian deathrock. More on this aspect later.
The American desert southwest as a whole was breeding a couple of other noteworthy deathrock groups in the late 1970s and early ’80s: Nevada’s Theatre of Ice could stake a claim to being one of the pioneers of the genre by virtue of their formation in 1978, while in Arizona Mighty Sphincter materialized in 1980 after, guitarist and singer Doug Clark noted, he became obsessed with “forming a band that used aspects of drag mixed with my fascination with monster movies and characters.” In Phoenix, The Consumers began playing snotty, Dead Boys-esque punk in 1977, but after guitarist Paul Cutler left for L.A. much of the Consumers’ catalog would transfer into 45 Grave’s hands. Compare the tracklist of The Consumers’ All My Friends are Dead to that of the 45 Grave’s Autopsy collection to see how many of the former band’s songs were adopted into the 45 Grave setlist.
Rozz Williams, born Roger Alan Painter, deserves special mention as progenitor of what would come to be thought of as the deathrock aesthetic. Lithe, fey, and androgynous in appearance, Williams’ exploits in visual art, poetry, and film deserve their own book. As the founder of Christian Death, however, he made an especially strong impression on the Adolescents’ Rikk Agnew. “We saw about two dozen kids show up to go to a funeral,” Agnew recounted for LA Weekly when asked about the first time he saw Christian Death. “They lined the stage with flowers and stuff and they went up there and they started playing. I thought that was the bitchinest thing I’d ever seen.” Agnew joined Christian Death as guitarist, and, with Rozz at the helm, the band produced 1982’s Only Theatre of Pain, the LP that is to deathrock what the first Ramones LP is to punk generally. In addition to the experimental projects Heltir and Premature Ejaculation, Rozz Williams would go on to form and front the deathrock bands Shadow Project (with Eva O. of the Superheroines) and Daucus Karota – both abrasive, guitar-driven outings that recalled the punk roots of the early LA deathrock scene.
The zenith years of deathrock’s classic era were 1982-1984. Within that short period of time most of the seminal musical documents were produced: Christian Death not only released the aforementioned Only Theatre of Pain in 1982, but also delivered the highly-regarded sophomore Catastrophe Ballet LP of 1984 (albeit with a drastically different lineup.) 45 Grave released Sleep in Safety in 1983, the sole studio LP from the original lineup (1987’s Autopsy was a compilation of material from various years.) TSOL’s Beneath the Shadows came out in 1982 (although their 1981 Dance with Me is an equally excellent marriage of Southern California hardcore punk with horror motifs;) their self-titled Voodoo Church EP was also released in 1982. 1983 saw the appearance of the Superheroines’ Souls that Save. Kommunity FK’s Vision and Voice LP also found an eager audience in 1983. A coincidental sampler of early deathrock can be found on the Hell Comes to Your House compilation, released in the early 1980s and intended as a sampler of L.A. punk bands. It speaks again to the admixture of deathrock and punk that bands like Social Distortion, Red Kross, 100 Flowers, Christian Death, the Superheroines, and 45 Grave all appear together on a collection intended to represent L.A. punk as a whole.
Existing in the same Los Angeles milieu with the above deathrock bands proper — and, in fine California punk tradition, also often swapping members with them — were bands like the Gun Club, the Flesh Eaters, and Tex and the Horseheads. These groups would incorporate a noir element into their sound. With the Flesh Eaters, this would reach some sort of climax with 1981’s A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die LP, which incorporated brassy ’50s sax (by way of a member of Los Lobos!) as well as elements of vintage, horror novelty rock (“Satan Stomp”.) Gun Club and Tex and the Horseheads, in the meantime, introduced elements of whiskey-soaked, dark country Americana into the mix, injecting the spirit of Johnny Cash into punk (and, by extension, gothic rock) in the clearest terms possible.
As mentioned before, the narrowest sense of “deathrock” refers to a specific style of music made in Southern California in the early 1980s. In its most expansive sense, however, “deathrock” has also become a descriptive label for a style of music generally, much like what became of the terms “punk” or “hardcore” (or, for that matter, jazz or the blues.) It’s in this broader sense of the term that East Coast bands like The Cramps (NYC,) The Misfits (New Jersey,) Beast (ex-Cramps,) Mourning Noise (New Jersey, again,) and Monica Richards’ Madhouse (Washington, DC) enter into the equation.
Turning to this, it was almost exactly in parallel with the West Coast deathrock movement that a b-movie horror take on punk was developing around the New York City punk scene. Almost single-handedly, The Cramps are responsible for this. Immersed in monster movie pulp culture, underground pinup and bondage magazines from the 1950s, southern fried rockabilly, and obscure 1960s garage rock, The Cramps mined the seediest recesses of the American cultural psyche for inspiration, and produced over 30 years of remarkable rock and roll as a result. Incredibly, the band never played a single show with another East Coast punk band that shared a similar predilection for horror camp and 50s rockabilly – The Misfits. Although Lodi, New Jersey’s Misfits managed to crank out a release before The Cramps ever did (1977’s “Cough Cool”,) The Cramps would coin the term “psychobilly” and can count as one of the first-wave American punk bands alongside the Ramones and Television. The influence of The Cramps is hard to overestimate on the American punk underground – or on alternative rock in general; even Dischord Records has admitted that were it not for The Cramps, bands like Minor Threat, Fugazi, and possibly their own label might not exist.
Together, the one-two punch of The Cramps and The Misfits would leave an indelible mark on most dark, alternative forms of rock. Music culture is so awash in their influence, it’s hard to remember a time when singing about vampires, mutants, and girls who looked like Vampira was not the normal way of things. (Indeed, this style of horror punk devolved into sad self-parody a long time ago, an unfortunate phenomenon – along with cynical “reunion” tours by “The Misfits” – that has hindered the proper appreciation of both bands’ legacy.)
The touring and eventual intersection between the horror punk bands of the East Coast and the deathrock bands of the West Coast would help culturally seed the American landscape for a broader phenomenon of darker “alt music” in general. Although the Misfits shared a brief British tour with The Damned in 1979 (and more on The Damned later,) Christian Death’s European outing in 1983 didn’t so much spread deathrock overseas, as it showed that punk was also turning a darker, gloomier shade of black on the east side of the Atlantic as well, following a cultural logic of its own. In part, this was ushered along by the development of gloomy and introspective postpunk on the one hand (Joy Division, Bauhaus,) and the so-called “positive punk” of bands like Sex Gang Children and Blood and Roses on the other.
In Part II: British dark punk, postpunk, the Batcave scene, and the first deathrock revival of 1998-2004.
Castration Squad photograph courtesy of Alice Bag. Christian Death jacket photo courtesy of traaf. Published under a Creative Commons license.
I was in San Francisco during the exegenesis(?) of all that. Specimen moved their entire Bat-Cave from England to the Mabuhay. It was incredible. In the 5 years I was there, it was like being bombarded with Culture I never would have seen otherwise. And I love, and Miss, every minute of it!
The truth was that when we had the idea of doing a traveling underground punk rock spook show… it was like 1978, 1979… and rather than pioneers, we thought we were “Johnny Come Latelies”… milking the last ounce from the sceene.
The idea of the crowd gathering aroung the band as they tell ghost stories was what we were actualling trying to do… and the real fun was attempting to take idea on the road to middle America… Boise, Reno, Salt Lake… But of course we went to L.A. first
Hey, maybe you could help me with my failing memory. I occasionally went to a deathrock club in LA in 1983 and I can’t remember the name. It wasn’t Scream, that came later. I think it only was running one night a week- perhaps on Wednesdays. I’m pretty sure it had a DJ. Do you have any guesses?
I recently became influenced by death rock and synth pop at the same time 🙂 I wonder what can happen if we could put them together???